The Nuances of Deep POV – Part 1

Writers hear a lot about point of view and, in particularly, deep POV.

What is deep POV? It’s being inside one character’s head, and, in fiction, there are some current “rules” that fiction writers are urged to follow.

Rules aside, there is a lot of failure to stick with deep POV, and that’s because many writers don’t understand what it truly means.

Think about it this way. You have a body in space, with numerous sensory receptors. Most people can see, hear, touch, taste, and feel things around them. People think in their heads about things—perhaps processing what is happening to them and around them, possibly thinking about the past or future while being somewhat aware of their body in space, or are impaired in some way as they attempt to think or process.

You, in your body, can take note of what is around you and inside you. And you are limited by your ability to observe and process those things. You are limited by, for example, your age. If you’re three years old, you don’t have either the vocabulary or the ability to understand abstract thought. If you’re older and demented, you will have particular limitations to what you can understand and process.

This all applies to your fictional POV (point of view) character. When you write a scene in a novel or take a POV in a short story, you are restricted to that person’s sensory perceptions, limitations, and capabilities to process information. Regardless of your genre, your plot or premise, your character’s background or personality, this all holds true.

How “Show, Don’t Tell” Fits In

Writers are also told to “show, don’t tell.” If an author is in deep POV with his character, the character is going to act and sound the way she should. She isn’t going to sound like the author. In other words: when you intrude and “tell” about a character rather than stay deep in her head and let readers experience the events through her, the writing sounds like you, the author.

Novels of times past were all about the author’s “voice.” If you read Steinbeck, for example, you’ll note a hundred pages of the author explaining all kinds of things, from the history of the Monterey Bay in California to the backstory of the main characters. This was how novels used to be written.

The first hundred or so pages of Michener’s books (try Alaska) contain lengthy geography lessons full of geological details of land masses forming and the like. I guess back then we used to like books like that (I did). They moved at the slow crawl of tectonic plates, and we sat for hours gradually pulled into a story that felt like thick molasses going down the throat. Ah, those were the good ol’ days when we had time to do that.

Fast forward to today with this fast-food society and fast-action video games. Readers today want cinematic scenes. They want to watch a character in real time, experiencing, reacting to, and processing events moment by moment. They don’t want to be told what happens. And that’s why we now see deep POV stressed.

If your character is “in the moment,” it violates deep POV for an author to start describing, out of the blue, the character’s hair and eye color. Amateur writers bring a character into a scene (usually after a few paragraphs of explaining, in author voice, what is going on, the backstory, and setting details). Then, upon mentioning the character, a laundry list of features is given.

Why is this an egregious violation of deep POV?

Because, in this moment, the character is not stopping whatever he’s doing and is now thinking that he’s 6’2″ with a strong build and jaw. Anytime you as author let your presence be felt in a story, you pull the reader out of POV.

Author Voice vs. Character Voice

If you’re in deep POV, that means every line of every scene is the character’s voice—her words, thoughts, vocabulary, attitude, personality, and so on. Even the narrative.

When “you” describe the setting, it shouldn’t be “you” doing the describing. It should be the character. And only if, in that moment, she would notice the setting.

If your character Sally is trying to save a dog that is stranded on a ledge above a raging river, she isn’t going to think of her hair color and that she used to be a size 6 but now has gained weight and wishes she could learn how to avoid those donuts at work. She isn’t going to think about how her parents moved to Las Vegas when she was three and how she grew up in an apartment above a casino. Unless she’s a kind of nutjob character with extreme ADHD and is out to lunch.

In other words, the only thing Sally is going to be thinking about is the dog and anything that situation might trigger in her body and mind.

What will she notice around her? She might notice when the rain pelts her face and her body gets chilled, making her zip up her coat. She might think thoughts about how to get help, whether she should risk leaving the dog alone to find help, how she wishes she hadn’t forgotten her cell phone. She might call out to someone or to the dog. Her stomach might growl because she skipped breakfast. She might hear a car honking and turn her head, then feel relief when people spill out of the car and run over, looking like they might be willing to help.

Every moment of that scene has to sound like Sally. If you’ve set her up to be a wilderness rescuer, she is going to respond and think in way much different from a little girl who owns and loves that dog.

I think one of the most common problems I see with POV violations is this issue of voice. I read scenes that are supposed to be in the point of view of a five-year-old, and all the narrative is adult, sophisticated, full of adult vocabulary and abstract thinking that a five-year-old couldn’t possibly know. This is the danger of trying to write scenes in a child’s POV.

If you go with omniscient POV and tell the story as an adult, you can bypass this problem, but it creates challenges. The primary challenge in using omniscient POV is you are falling back on telling instead of showing. And that’s hard to do well. The storyteller/narrator voice, then, must be wonderful and engaging, and, in a sense, that narrator becomes the POV character with a specific and very present personality.

I hope you spend some time looking carefully at both your own writing and some great novels (contemporary) that showcase masterfully executed deep point of view. Pay attention to how every word, every line, sounds and who it sounds like. Does your writing sound like you, or does the scene sound as if the character is speaking to you?

Read Aloud in First Person

Here’s a great way to test your writing: read it aloud in first person. If you’re already in first person, pay attention to whether every line sounds like your character’s voice and personality. If you’re writing in third person, this will really help you a lot. Change all the narrative to dialogue. Here’s an example I quickly wrote:

John strode valiantly across the lawn to confront his nemesis. He was tall and lanky, and he wore a sports jacket and well-shined shoes. Bill stood defiantly, thinking how stupid John was to confront him. John huffed, the way he always did, and fisted his hands, ready for a fight.

Now, watch what happens when I change to first person, in John’s head, as running dialogue:

I strode valiantly across the lawn to confront my nemesis. I am tall and lanky, and I’m wearing a sports jacket and well-shined shoes. Bill is standing defiantly, and he’s thinking how stupid I am to confront him. I huffed, the way I always do, and fisted my hands, ready for a fight.

While some of the phrasing can work faithfully in deep POV, a lot of it doesn’t.

  • First off, John can’t know what Bill is thinking; he can only guess.
  • Second, maybe John might use a phrase like “I strode valiantly to confront my nemesis,” but if he would, you’d want to set up the kind of character who would think and talk like that (and few people do and would—maybe in some 19th-century story).
  • Third, John is not going to be thinking of his physical features in this moment. Maybe some other time, something would trigger him doing that. But not now.
  • Fourth, John might be aware that he’s huffing, but it’s doubtful he would think about how he always huffs—that comes across as author intrusion.

This is just one simple example of how many POV violations you might have in four sentences alone (not to mention the bad shift in tense from past to present to past).

I hope this initial exploration about deep POV is helpful. Share in the comments what POV violations tick you off or that you are guilty of! And if you struggle with POV, get 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing and study the chapters on POV violations.

Featured Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

3 Responses to “The Nuances of Deep POV – Part 1”

  1. Sue MacDonald November 16, 2020 at 12:19 pm #

    Great points! Get inside the head of your protagonist.

    • Tom Pope November 17, 2020 at 4:57 pm #

      Your example used the first person POV and I believe many readers might still think you can not use this approach with the third person.

      However, the third person internal POV operates the same way you have shown. For example

      — John saw the daggers in Bill’s eyes as he approached. Why was Bill always in his way?

      Now he had to bluff his strength to deal with Bill. The damn fellow probably thought John was lame. Felt his fists form the closer he came to Bill.

      One reason the internal POV works beyond the first person is that the author can bring the reader in one character at a time. Any questions that arise can be answered when the scene shifts to another character’s POV. In that scene, the reader can discover unanswered questions about the first scene’s POV.

      What do you think?
      Tom

  2. Erik November 23, 2020 at 5:35 am #

    Nice!

    I just remember I used to write stories in first person and then edit them into third (mostly because they had more than one POV). I felt it made it easier to write and made the characters feel more genuine. Though I don’t recall thinking much about “deep POV”…

    So your advice about reading the text in first person is something I am definitely going to try.

    Thanks!

    /E

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